Organic and Fair Trade: What it Means and Why it Matters

image: fair trade and organicPerhaps the green movement has caught your attention and you'd like to get on board but don't know where to begin. Two commonly used terms are organic and fair trade.  As an entry point to green living, exploring what organic and fair trade mean can be an entry point to developing a personal sustainability plan that grows from beyond passive curiosity to one of demonstrated eco action.  

What's organic?  Products labeled “100% Organic” and carrying the “USDA Organic” seal are just that – they contain all organically produced ingredients. Oganic refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed.  It includes a system of production, processing, distribution and sales that assures consumers that the products maintain the organic integrity that begins on the farm.  For instance, were you aware, conventional farming uses more petroleum than any other single industry, consuming 12 percent of the country’s total energy supply?  Also, most commercial fertilizers come from petroleum? More energy is used to produce synthetic fertilizers than to till, cultivate, and harvest all the crops in the US. 

Choosing organic foods and products is just one sustainability concept to get you started.  Following are a few more reasons why to go organic:

  • Reduce the Toxic Load: Keep Chemicals Out of the Air, Water, Soil and our Bodies
  • Protect Future Generations
  • Build Healthy Soil
  • Organic food Taste Better and has Truer Flavor
  • Assist Family Farmers of all Sizes
  • Avoid genetically engineered / modified food
  • Promote Biodiversity

Fair trade is a term used frequently in sustainable living circles but like many "green" words, there tends to be confusion as to its meaning.  Fair trade is a sustainability concept and is an alternative way of doing business - one that builds equitable, long-term partnerships between consumers in North America and producers in developing regions.  

The word “fair” can mean a lot of different things to different people and there are myths  about what fair trade really is.  Fair Trade is about more than just paying a fair wage. It is also not charity. It means that trading partnerships are based on reciprocal benefits and mutual respect; that prices paid to producers reflect the work they do; that workers have the right to organize; that national health, safety, and wage laws are enforced; and that products are environmentally sustainable and conserve natural resources.  Components of Fair Trade include:

  • Fair wage.
  • Fair working conditions.
  • Open information exchanges between producers, consumers, and companies.
  • Long-term trade relationships between corporations and producers.
  • Practices that promote environmental protection and sustainable practices.
  • Elimination of unnecessary middlemen between producers and consumers.
  • Providing financial and technical assistance to producers whenever possible.
  • Providing equal opportunities for advancement all people.
  • Being open to public accountability.
  • Ensuring the rights of children.
  • Cultivating environmental stewardship.
  • Respecting cultural identity.

As expressed in our sustainability consulting, fair trade is a sustainable business model that has multiple environmental and social impacts:

  • Fair trade has a positive effect on the environment. 
  • It benefits farmers, farm lands, and the workers in developing countries.
  • Provides consumers with options to purchase ethically sound and higher integrity products.
  • Positive impact on communities: Children’s school fees are paid; nutritional needs met; health care costs are covered; the poor, especially women, are empowered; the environmental impact of production, sourcing, and transport is mitigated to the fullest extent possible. Such an impact is created, because fair trade approaches development as a holistic process. 

With increasing eco awareness there are more opportunities for consumers to leverage purchasing power to support credible and sustainable businesses.  The easiest way to buy fair trade items is to look for the Fair Trade Certified label.  

Identifying what green is, and more specifically, what green means to you and your life is a first step. Keeping it simple, a sustainable lifestyle is about making choices and taking eco actions and can be categorized in different areas of our lives.  It is a primary focus on eco awareness with actions towards reducing ones carbon footprint, managing waste, and embracing sustainability concepts in decision making. Using organic and fair trade products is one way to explore and develop a meaningful green living lifestyle.  

Comments for Organic and Fair Trade: What it Means and Why it Matters

Name: Rodney North
Time: Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Thank you for writing about this.
An FYI for those learning the ins & outs of Fair Trade: the black &white Fair Trade symbol above is well on the way to being phased out of us. Since January the certifier who issued it is replacing it with a new one. At the same time other Fair Trade certifications are entering the U.S. market. At Equal Exchange we're using three of them, including those issued by IMO, Fair Trade International, and the CLAC - a Latin American network of Fair Trade registered farmer co-ops. For more on the various certifications see